History and Hollywood – the battle of Stirling (Bridge)

Scene from the 1995 film ‘Braveheart’

There have been very few memorable films based on true historical events or characters as Mel Gibsons 1995 film ‘Braveheart’ based on the Scottish warrior William Wallace. One of the most brillant scenes of the film is the famous battle of Stirling on 11th September 1297. But is the scenes of the battle historically accurate?

In the film ‘Braveheart’, the Scottish army is depicted as facing the English army on a large field. In the film, the Scottish cavalry flees at the sight of the arrival of the English army. The English commander, sensing an easy victory, sends the English cavalry to butcher the Scottish infantry. But its the Scottish army led by William Wallace that turn the tables on the English cavalry by impaling the English horses on large spikes. But did this really happen?

The battle of Stirling is actually called the Battle of Stirling Bridge where the Scottish forces led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray trapped the English forces on the Bridge at Stirling that crosses the River Forth. According to the history, Wallace and Moray arrived at the Abbey Craig north of Stirling and were waiting for the English army sent to defeat Wallace.

The Scots were outnumbered on  the day of the battle with the Scots having 36 horsemen and 8000 foot soldiers compared to the 200 to 300 cavalry and 10,000 foot soldiers of the English army. There is no doubt that a full battle with the English on ground of their own choosing would have resulted in a defeat for the Scots. The scots had to use the superior English numbers in cavalry and infantry to their own advantage.


Luckily for the scots, the English commander John de Warrene, the Earl of Surrey appointed by King Edward I to be the english governor of Scotland. John de Warrene was impatient to use his superior force to crush the smaller Scottish army. Another important character was Hugh de Cressingham, the English treasurer in Scotland and who was responsible for taxation in Scotland. Cressingham was hated not only by the scots for his taxation but also by his own side who believed that Cressingham was a solemn and lofty man, loved money exceedingly and failed to construct the stone wall which the lord the king himself had ordered to be constructed upon the new fortifications at Berwick; which turned out to be a scandal to our men’.

According to primary sources as Chronicler Walter de Guisborough, when offered reinforcements to crush the scots Hugh de Cressingham wanted to ‘……send the same people back with his thanks, saying that the army that they had could be enough and that it was not useful to trouble them for nothing or to consume the King’s treasury more than was necessary’.This desire to save money and decline reinforcements also influenced Cressingham’s agreement with the English commander John De Warrene to cross the narrow bridge at Stirling rather than cross the river at another point as suggested by Scottish knight Richard Lundie.

Another factor in the advantage of the scots was the narrow bridge. The bridge crossing the River Forth at Stirling was not the large bridge it is now. In 1297, the bridge was a small narrow wooden bridge and it would have taken hours for the entire English force to cross the bridge. Could the Scots use the English numbers and the small narrow bridge to their advantage? Richard Lundie recognised the dangers of crossing the small narrow bridge with such a large force when he advised John De Warrene that ‘My Lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men.’  The bridge was so narrow that ‘…a pair of horsemen could scarcely and with difficulty cross at the same time’. Richard Lundie would join the Scots after the battle.

the battle of stirling bridge

Watching the English heavy cavalry crossing the narrow bridge led by Hugh de Cressingham to the loop in the River Forth were the Scottish forces under William Wallace and Andrew Moray, one of the leaders of the rebellions against the English in Scotland. According to Yorkshire Chronicler Walter de Guisboroug, the Scottish forces then ‘came down from the mountain [high ground], and sent the spearmen to occupy the foot of the bridge, such that from then no passage or retreat remained open, but in turning back, as also in making haste over the bridge, many were thrown headlong and were drowned’.

The spearmen were foot soldiers that were armed with long, iron-tipped spears or carried a sword or hand axe as well, for close quarters combat. With very little room to move once across the narrow bridge, the spearmen could wreak havoc on the English cavalry that were only effective in open spaces.

Once the English heavily cavalry and foot soldiers had crossed the narrow bridge to attack the Scottish forces, there was no way to retreat except back across the narrow bridge. The Scottish forces moved around the trapped English and cut them off from retreating back across the bridge. With their retreat across the bridge cut off, the English were forced to either fight their way across or jump in the river and swim. One of those killed in the fighting was the hated treasurer Hugh de Cressingham who the Scots ‘stripped him of his skin and divided it amongst themselves in small parts, not indeed for relics but for insults, for he was a handsome and exceedingly fat man and they called him not the King’s treasurer but the King’s ‘Treacherer’.

So where did the version of events used by Mel Gibson’s film ‘Braveheart‘ come from?  The film borrows from several later events, especially the 1307 Scottish victory at Bannockburn – which the film mentions at the end. The spearmen used in the film seems to come from the later battle of Falkirk where spearmen were arranged in formations known as schiltrons where the long spears (pikes) were pointed outwards at various heights gave these formations a formidable and impenetrable appearance.

It is also possible that the film ‘Braveheart’ borrowed greatly from a Scottish version of events as told by  Blind Harry, also known as Henry the Minstrel.  Harry was born in 1440 and therefore wrote his version of events at least 150 years after the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Harry was a poet and minstrel – not a historian. Did Harry write about William Wallace as a history or to entertain? Also where did Harry get his own information about William Wallace and the battle of Stirling Bridge? Was Harry simply repeating an accepted version of events at Stirling Bridge and repeating it for a Scottish audience?

There is no doubt that the film ‘Braveheart’ was entertaining. But is it history?

Referenced websites

  1. Chronicler Walter de Guisborough – http://digital.nls.uk/scotlandspages/timeline/1297.html
  2. Blind Harry or Harry the Minstrel – http://www.mostly-medieval.com/explore/intro.htm
  3. Spearmen – http://learning.battleofbannockburn.com/battlepedia/characters/spearmen/#.VkEzercrLnA
  4. Harry the Minstrel – http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/famous-medieval-people/blind-harry.htm
  5. Battle of Stirling http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/battle_stirling_bridge.html
  6. Battle of Stirling http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/battleofstirlingbridge/

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